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Next Mission: Helping Vets Adapt to Life After the Military

Wall Street Journal

When Blake Bourne left the Army in 2012, he found a new personal mission he didn’t know he had. After six years as an infantry officer, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bourne came home to spend a year as a stay-at-home dad to his newborn son while his wife began a new job.

The shift from active-duty officer to full-time dad was surprisingly jarring. For the first three months as a civilian in his new hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, the only adults Bourne spoke with were mostly cashiers and his wife.

“I’d jumped out of airplanes and led men into danger, and now I can’t think where to get a haircut,” recalls Bourne, now 33. He realized many other veterans were probably having the same challenges shifting away from a life where many basic choices were made for you: On a military base, there’s a barbershop, a supermarket, and childcare. There’s always another soldier to steer you to a decent restaurant or a car repair shop. But veterans just out of the military who return home or settle in new towns don’t often have those resources.

“You expect the freedom and autonomy that was missing in the military, but that also means personal responsibility,” Bourne says. “No one prepares you for that.”

After a few months at home with his son, Bourne decided to change that. He began volunteering with local groups to help veterans. That’s when Bourne learned about the Charlotte Bridge Home, a program that helps returning veterans make the leap back to civilian life.

“In the Army, I was an infantry officer,” said Bourne. “I knew what my job was, what my mission was for six years. In Charlotte, I’m Blake the dad, with no real guide to navigating what the city had to offer me. I didn’t have a purpose or know what my mission should be, I didn’t know how to make friends, and I sure didn’t know how to navigate a plethora of community services.”

Six months after starting as a volunteer, Bourne was hired as the organization’s director of community initiatives.

At Charlotte Bridge Home, Bourne works with local employers to develop job opportunities that take advantage of the skills and abilities that veterans bring with them from military service, and to develop job-training programs to teach veterans skills for the city’s current job market. Much of his time is spent training veterans to develop the social networks they need for civilian life—everything from finding doctors and grocery stores to meet-ups with other vets.

Veterans have a lot to offer the communities to which they return, but they need guidance, says Bourne. To help further this goal, Charlotte Bridge Home recently received a $150,000 capacity-building grant from the Walmart Foundation. Charlotte Bridge Home was also selected to receive a grant by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, from a program also funded with a $1 million grant from the Walmart Foundation, to help develop the nation’s first statewide veteran supportive services coordinated network, NCServes, in North Carolina.

“Veterans feel very capable, very driven but don’t always know where to aim,” Bourne adds. “Our goal is to build on their strengths and match the strengths and needs of the communities with those of the veterans.”

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